Memoirville

Interview: Julie Klam, author of You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

By Molly Ditmore

I write nonfiction, so that’s a different set of choices to make. Unlike fiction, a memoir has not been written before you try to sell it. Once you’re in this process of writing, you’re already in the marketing.

Sometimes life doesn’t give us what we want, it gives us who we need. Julie Klam’s second book, You Had Me At Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness, charts her path from Otto–a funny-faced Boston Terrier who showed her the realities of true love–to a motley crew of rescue dogs. With humor and tireless affection, Klam relates life’s lessons as taught by a ragtag group of four-legged friends.

Her first book, Please Excuse My Daughter, is about learning how to be independent when her unconventional upbringing proved unsuitable for modern womanhood. Klam, who has worked as a writer for Rolling Stone, Harper’s Bazaar and VH-1’s Pop Up Video, is already at work on her next two works, a memoir about friendship as well as a second dog book. There is also a Boston Terrier foster in her near future.

Klam spoke with SMITH from her apartment in NYC.

This is your second memoir. Why did you choose the memoir format for a book about animal rescue?
That’s the way I write. I pretty much only write personal essay and memoir. It’s the way I choose to tell stories that have some part of myself in there. It’s more interesting to me. This book was a very different topic from my first. There were elements that were easier to do because the subject was less loaded. Other parts were harder because the first book I’d been writing in my head my whole life. It’s almost like I poured it out. With the second book, there were times I felt more slumped. Sophomore efforts for writers are talked about: If your first does well, will the second? And if your first book doesn’t do well and your second doesn’t either, well… I think you can figure out a way that any publication is going to be difficult.

I write nonfiction, so that’s a different set of choices to make. Unlike fiction, a memoir has not been written before you try to sell it. Maybe you have finished a few chapters. Once you’re in this process of writing, you’re already in the marketing. Marketing the book starts before you finish writing and editing. It’s part of the choices you make while writing.

Where do you write? Are the dogs with you?
At my dining room table. I have a view of George Washington Bridge and the river. I finally have a good working computer. When I write the dogs are in the living room and I can see them all piled on the couch together. Sometimes I go to my bed and they all pile onto the computer and it doesn’t work well. They’re not very good writers.

In addition to writing about your dogs, you write about your husband, daughter and family. Did you have to tread carefully? What was their reaction to seeing themselves in print?
When I wrote my first book I did share with them because it was a lot of personal things. I was very careful because it’s my perspective. And the people around me understand me. My husband read the first book in parts but it was hard for him to read, though he liked it. My mom, with the first book, had issues with it. There was one part in particular and we talked about it and I changed it. To me, the book was a loving depiction, although there were things she wouldn’t have included. With this book, my daughter is coming to an age where I will facebook or tweet things she’s said; just today she said it’s embarrassing to her.

With the dog book, the people I was concerned writing about were people I’m not in contact with now. I changed names. When the people in my rescue group read it, they joked about who was going to play them in the movie.

You Had Me At Woof is doing very well.
Thanks. It was on the bestseller list for three weeks and has done well on Amazon. The Amazon rankings are the one gauge we writers have as a measure. My first book was ranked something like one million on Amazon and when it dipped to the eight-hundred-thousands it was cause to celebrate. It’s funny how you change expectations.

My first book got a lot of reviews and the book sold very little. This time I’ve gotten barely any reviews but the book’s done great. It’s redefined for me what it takes to sell books.

Dog books are hugely popular right now.
I definitely think that this being a dog book had something to do with it. It has a cute cover and cute title. Now is a particular time for a book like this. For the last couple of years, people have been looking for happier stories. You rarely read a book about a dog who turned out to be a war criminal.

Before writing You Had Me At Woof, did you read any of the hugely popular dog books, like Marley And Me?
I haven’t read them. I have a stack of books to read and I keep saying those are next and they are. There are a lot of sad dog books out right now. But in the end they’re all redemptive.

I saw Marley And Me on a plane and everyone was sobbing. It was horrible.
Yes. I went to an advanced screening with friends and some of them thought it was manipulative. I don’t think so—I think anyone who has a dog, anyone who’s lost a dog, it’s easy to tap into that emotion.

You have three dogs. Are there any more in your future?
One upcoming Boston Terrier rescue, but it will only be temporary.

The pet rescue community attracts people who are passionate about animals. What was their response to the book?
Before the first rescue people read it I was concerned about dog people—show dog people, any intensely dog people—because up to that point the only people who had worked on it were “regular people.” People who do rescue are happy to see the connection to their lives and see that someone else is nutty too.

Any advice for aspiring memoir writers?
Write with respect and you don’t have to worry.

Finally, Julie Klam, what’s your Six-Word Memoir.
One dog turned into three dogs.

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VISIT Klam’s website.

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